Movement and literacy


Movement interventions can help improve literacy skills for children with SEN

Received wisdom would say that the only thing which will improve reading skills in children with SEN is literacy teaching. However, recent developments in cognitive science suggest that it may be time to reconsider this perspective.

One of the most exciting new ideas in cognitive science is “embodied cognition”. This concept states that our bodies are an integral part of our cognitive resource, so that body movement and sensory input to the brain provide an essential element in problem solving and other cognitive tasks. For example, researchers have shown that minute muscle movements in the hands are a fundamental part of language comprehension.

When we think and solve problems, we use many of the same parts of the brain that we use to plan movements. Perhaps if children learned to control movement in a particularly well-organised fashion, then their problem solving might also improve.

Rhythm and reading

There is growing support for this hypothesis in research into the origins of reading difficulties. According to the academic Dana David, rhythmic ability at age six is strongly linked with children’s ability to rapidly put a name to a picture, word identification and phonological awareness, and this is true at least up to age 11.

The underlying link between rhythm and literacy is that it is essential to be able to hear the rhythm in speech before progressing to phonemic awareness and reading. The effect of poor rhythmic ability is to produce an experience of spoken language for a child which is similar to “listening to a non-native speaker speaking your language with the stresses in the wrong place”, according to Professor Usha Goswami.

This is reinforced by Martina Huss and colleagues who suggest that accurate perception of rhythm may be critical for phonological development and consequently for the development of literacy.

It is also becoming clear that exercise brings wider benefits beyond improvements in health. Phillip Tomporowski and colleagues suggest that exercise performed on a regular basis for several weeks alters brain functions that underlie cognition and behaviour. Adele Diamond and Kathleen Lee showed that the ability to think, plan and act in children aged four to 12 could be developed through physical as well as cognitive activities, so long as the physical activities involved incremental steps which gradually increased the challenge and which included repeated practice.

The practice of relaxation exercises and mindfulness also appears to positively improve aspects of academic performance. Secondary school students who were taught self-relaxation exercises performed significantly better in orthography tests than controls, according to Günter Krampen.

Reading fluency

Joseph Torgeson has shown that reading fluency is controlled particularly by visual memory of known words, not phoneme awareness. Here is another area in which motor and visual practice may offer a new tool to help support reading for the child with SEN.

My own research suggests that incorporating physical rhythmic activities does have a significant impact on literacy for children in the lowest 20 per cent of the ability range. I realise, though, that there are challenges to the full-scale adoption of this kind of intervention because it involves a radical approach to literacy learning that appears to go against current thinking – the idea that fluency in reading is produced by phonics instruction.

However, there is a growing body of evidence from the academic world to suggest that movement interventions could have a very important role to play. I think it is vital that we challenge our own preconceptions about such approaches and consider them for our work supporting the literacy development of our youngsters.

Further information

Dr Elizabeth McClelland is a former Oxford University researcher and the founder of Move4words, a not-for-profit classroom sensory training programme:


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